Bangkok (AFP)

A pinch of hot pepper, ersatz pork and some basil leaves thrown in a boiling wok: Chef Songpol swears that his vegan version of the Thai "pad kra phao" is up to the original. In Southeast Asia, where meat is king, vegetable proteins are gradually appearing on the plates.

"It has texture and flavor (pork), the rest is a matter of technique," he says, officiating in the kitchen of the restaurant You & Mee in Bangkok.

But in a country with recognized culinary skills that are the pride of its inhabitants, the chef admits that it will be difficult to convince some customers with his alternative recipe.

"They do not expect to find plant-based substitutes in Thai dishes."

The agri-food industry is engaged in a global competition on the new alternative protein market, in order to attract more and more consumers to adopt a vegan diet, for ecological, moral or health reasons.

This market could weigh $ 140 billion within 10 years, according to a study by Barclay's bank.

As evidence of investor appetite, the action of Beyond Meat, a beef-free steakhouse producer, quoted at $ 65 when it was introduced to Wall Street last May, is now worth around $ 150.

In the United States, meat substitutes are offered in fast food and vegetable dairy products are enjoying growing success. But this industry of vegetable protein substitutes is only a small part of the agri-food industry and industry groups are now eyeing other meat-eating markets, such as Asia.

In Chef Songpol's pad kra phao, pork is replaced by a concoction of peas, shiitake mushrooms, rice and soy, a recipe developed by Hong Kong maker Green Monday.

"It's designed right from the start for Asian cuisine," CEO David Yeung told AFP, although changing habits "is extremely difficult" in an area where pork is ubiquitous on the plates, accompanied by rice or noodles.

- "Thais love their meat" -

In Thailand, the second country in Southeast Asia where the brand tests its products after Singapore, the price is also a drag.

On the menu of the You & Mee, the pork is proposed at 8 dollars plate, rice included, four times more expensive than the original served in the many street canteens of the city.

The health benefits of these plant products, often developed industrially, are also questioned by some.

But according to a study by marketing firm Mintel in 2018, more than half of Thais living in urban areas are willing to reduce their consumption of meat.

This potential is pushing Asian companies to "seriously invest" in the sector, according to Michelle Teodoro, the firm's nutritionist.

From Japan to the Philippines, alternative protein producers have been bought up to several hundred million dollars, and in Singapore, state-owned Temasek Holdings has recently invested in a manufacturer of ice cream without cow's milk.

In some restaurants in Hanoi, Vietnam, there is now a soy-based version of pork stew and snails - a local specialty - as well as fake sweet-and-sour pork bones made from sweet potatoes and dough. beans.

But difficult to predict if and when Southeast Asia will actually get to the "wrong" meat.

For Diane Piroon, a kindergarten teacher from Bangkok who tasted Chef Songpol's dish, "to taste, it looks like pork". But "Thais love their meat .. it's a real challenge to change the recipes of their childhood," she warns.

© 2019 AFP